Homework assignment: Finish application for college aid

Karen Herzog:

For the past three years, Teresa Piraino of South Milwaukee has diligently filled out the federal application for financial aid for her son Anthony, who is studying criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

In the next few weeks, the Pirainos will scramble to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid again — this time for two kids, as daughter Jessica plans to study nursing at Alverno College in the fall.

“I want to get right on it,” Teresa Piraino said of the online form known as FAFSA, which becomes accessible every Jan. 1. “The stakes are high and I want to get the most we can because I can’t give them the money they’ll need.”

With the cost of college escalating — and with it, student debt — no one wants to leave money on the table.

But for many families, procrastinating on filing FAFSA may mean missing out on thousands of dollars in Federal Work-Study, low-interest Federal Perkins Loans and the Wisconsin Grant for state residents — all need-based aid awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. When the limited pool of money is gone, students who otherwise would qualify are out of luck, and are left with higher-interest federal and private loans that can pile up debt.

A low-income student potentially could leave more than $6,000 on the table in first-come, first-served money that doesn’t have to be paid back or that can be repaid at a lower interest rate than other available loans, according to financial aid officials at several Wisconsin universities.